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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: A No Fly Zone in Syria

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By Morgan Deane:

Hillary Clinton and Evan McMullin both proposed a no fly zone in Syria. They offer this idea as a response to the humanitarian crisis and a wave of refugees flocking Europe and the US.  Trump attacked the no fly zone, saying it will start World War III.  However, largely missing in the discussion were the relative merits and disadvantages of each position, and their impact on the humanitarian crisis and American foreign policy.  The no fly zone has distinct advantages that will advance US interests and humanitarian goals, but the risk to conflict is likely too great especially considering the mood of the country.

The advantages of a no fly zone are numerous.  The use of the air force has a great cost to benefit ratio. The American pilots are flying the most high-tech planes, and are the best trained and most experienced in the world. This is a relatively easy and bloodless way for America to project power with little risk to the American lives. Except for Russian air power and ballistic missiles (see below), it’s a unique advantage that other powers don’t have. They don’t have the logistical platforms, such as carriers, to get their assets in the area, and many don’t even have air force and pilots to accomplish this. ISIS is training pilots in Libya, but they are hardly an air force nor are they prepared to challenge American planes. The nature of the conflict produces a good deal of low level fighters with small arms and bomb making capabilities. They need a state to pay for and train things like an aircraft. This applies to the moderate rebel groups as well. They don’t have an air force and America does, so America would be providing air shields around vital areas like Aleppo and their bases. This comes at a relatively small cost and is little risk to American lives while providing a great deal of change on the ground.

This doesn’t just have strategic benefit. A no fly zone will help the millions of displaced persons and increasing numbers of persecuted minority groups, some of which have been turned into sex slaves. On top of this, the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its own people. The long tenure of the war is increasing the skill and street cred of radical elements to the point that they will be the primary beneficiaries if the Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad falls.

There is also something called the apple of discord in foreign policy. This is a juicy item which invites foreign powers into the region for a taste. Both Russia and Turkey, various ethnic and religious factions, criminals, as well as trans-national terrorists have flocked and benefited from chaos in the region.  At least easing the chaos by providing a no fly zone from the chaos might dissuade bad actors and increase the strength of the moderate resistance. Not to mention it will provide a zone for the supply of much needed food, medicine and places to build shelters for internally displaced persons.

However, on the flip-side there are just as many negatives.  American pilots are still at risk. If the downed pilot Scott O’Grady was captured by the Serbians he would have been brutally tortured and might have damaged the US’s ability to act in the Bosnian crisis.  A humanitarian crisis tugs on the heart strings but it’s not a clear and obvious foreign policy interest. There is a security component to the refugee crisis. The Paris shooters had refugee IDs, and mass sexual assaults on News Years Eve in Germany are both examples of the potential risk they pose. But the problem remains largely humanitarian and could be met by NGOs providing locals with help and options to stay.  America has other options to help and continue to empower the locals to fight on their own, without any involvement of US combat forces.  The US doesn’t always know which groups are friendly and worthy of help, and which are becoming radicalized, so our no fly zone could end up becoming the air force of radical terrorist groups or militias.

The biggest issue is that no fly zones must be enforced. Russian fighter jets are also some of the best in the world with well-trained pilots.  If they chose to ignore the no fly zone, American planes would have to engage and enforce it. At best this would lead to an international incident that raises the tension throughout the region, an event which has a good chance of ending the no fly zone as quickly as it begun. This could even lead to a war nobody wants, in a region the US doesn’t want to be mired in.  Russians have been aggressive in Europe, using economic leverage, paramilitary forces, cyber-attacks, and sometimes naked aggression to advance their interests. In Syria they are propping up their ally, and they claim to strike ISIS, but seem to strike moderate rebels and targets that aid the regime instead.  There is a good chance that they would test American resolve by forcing pilots to engage their planes.

A no fly zone has the potential to ease the humanitarian crisis and increase America’s standing in the world. But it could also become another red line that isn’t enforced, decreasing US credibility.  Much like the NATO force deployed to the Balkans, the US must have the political will to go to war if necessary, in order to decrease the chance their potential no fly zone will be implemented. Given the mood of the country and the most antiwar Republican ever elected, its doubtful that will exists, and a no fly zone will be implemented. Given that fact, Trump had a good point that the no fly zone is dangerous and could lead to war. Despite the vast benefits of a no fly zone, the negatives will likely outweigh them.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman.  Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.

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